Last year, writer Nancy Rommelmann wrote a widely shared Quillette article entitled “The Internet Locusts Descend on Ristretto Roasters,” in which she described the mob-fueled social panic that had enveloped her husband’s Portland, Oregon café. The mobbing had been set off by a single former employee who’d resigned after seeking to implement a “Reparations Happy Hour,” an event that “would involve stationing white people at the front door to buy patrons of color a coffee.” The resulting ordeal lasted for months, damaged the company’s brand, and ultimately contributed to Rommelmann’s decision to move to a less politically radicalized locale: New York City.
It may seem odd to think that New York would offer the author a respite from progressive sentiment, as opposed to an overdose. But as Rommelmann told Quillette podcast listeners during our conversation, it actually makes sense: In many New York neighbourhoods, there is an organic, longstanding atmosphere of multiculturalism that allows for candor and viewpoint pluralism. In Portland, on the other hand, progressive political culture is dominated by small cliques of largely young, largely white newcomers who are more likely to take their cues from brittle online subcultures than from humane, geographically-rooted civic norms.
Rommelmann also was eager to move to a city with a vibrant national media presence. For all the sporadic attention that Portland gets when local political gangs (we’re no longer allowed to call them “antifa,” apparently) beat up a journalist or try to burn down public buildings, the day-to-day reality is that the city is a media backwater. And this fact clearly contributed to the strength of the mob campaign against her husband’s business: If you Google “Ristretto Roasters,” you’ll find that coverage of the 2018 mobbing was dominated by a handful of tiny blogs and local outlets, most of whose writers seemed deeply enmeshed in the same shrill call-out subculture that spawned the campaign against Ristretto Roasters in the first place.
To my knowledge, there exists no comprehensive study of the individuals and businesses that have been targeted by social-justice trolls. And I am not presuming to offer one here. But as someone who’s served as a writer and editor on this beat for several years, I’ve observed anecdotal evidence suggesting that businesses in a certain kind of town or small city are more vulnerable than those in larger cities—especially if, as with Portland, their political culture is dominated by newly arrived artists, activists, tech workers, and students who imagine participation in social-justice mob activity to be an ideologically mandated extrapolation of their professional or academic métier. These areas are large enough to support a digital ecosystem that can be weaponized by social-justice mobs; but also sufficiently small and parochial to ensure that this ecosystem exists as an insulated monoculture, one in which mobbing participants can freely excuse (or even applaud) tendencies that outside observers would recognize as cruel, anti-social or even sociopathic.
The prime Canadian example is Halifax, capital of the thinly populated Atlantic province of Nova Scotia. While its population is only about 430,000, a third smaller than Portland, the city’s unusually febrile social-justice enthusiasts have generated a number of meltdowns. In 2017, a nationally covered scandal ensued when a Halifax Pop Explosion (HPX) festival volunteer was thrown out of a Lido Pimienta concert for refusing to heed the singer’s demand that the audience self-segregate according to race (with whites moving to the back). Last year, American composer Mary Jane Leach was shamed from the podium at Halifax’s OBEY music convention because she had spoken the name of a work by her long-time friend Julius Eastman—on whose oeuvre she is an acknowledged expert—that included the N-word. And just this month, the HPX leadership collapsed into its own absurd race-recrimination scandal, due to the fallout from an obscure argument on Instagram.
Like Portland, Halifax is a liberal regional hub that acts as a magnet for young people looking to find a job or get discovered. Despite the city’s small size, it has no fewer than seven universities and colleges. (If the reported numbers are credible, something like a quarter of the city’s population is enrolled at one of them.) Historically, the country’s Maritime region has had an unusually strong dependence on government subsidies, including in the field of music and arts. Both of the above-referenced festivals are largely dependent on government grants. As with the increasingly parochial domain of Canadian literature and film, many of the ostensible social-justice-themed disputes in Halifax serve as proxies in regard to status-based competitions for funding, publication and social-media attention within art-house cliques.
Given this kind of environment, it should not be surprising that even humble neighbourhood businesses in Halifax now are at risk of social-justice mobbing. This includes the four-location café chain known as “Steve-O-Reno’s,” which recently offered the following public confession on its Facebook page:
It is with regret that an individual who is not, nor has ever been, an owner or employee of Steve-O-Reno’s has engaged in social media conversations which have been interpreted as anti-Black sentiments. Steve-O-Reno’s staff have dedicated endless time, energy, and resources over the years to foster meaningful relationships within the community. The online conversations of this individual are not associated with our ownership or staff. We recognize it has not been enough to model intolerance for racism—we must instead actively develop, implement, and engage in anti-racist behaviours and policies. We are forging ahead with actionable steps to ensure appropriate anti-racist education for our ownership, our staff and our community. We are committed to unpacking, reflecting, educating ourselves, and establishing…
I will truncate it there, because you can probably write the rest yourself. By now, these penitence rituals have become formulaic, and the hypocrisies at play are well understood. Specifically, we are all supposed to pretend to believe that the ownership and staff of Steve-O-Reno’s now are spending their waking hours imagining how to rid the world of racism, as opposed to mopping floors, operating espresso machines, and otherwise managing the task of staying in business during a pandemic. We are also supposed to pretend to believe that the “social media conversations” at issue were, in fact, good-faith efforts to spread the gospel of anti-racism; when the truth is that everyone to whom Steve-O-Reno’s message was directed knows full well that the teapot tempest could be traced to a single Halifax Facebook user going by the name “Minette Murphy.” Earlier this month, she shamed Steve-O-Reno’s on the basis that the owner’s boyfriend once had posted the following line on his Facebook page: “People will always be slaves to others until they are able to say ‘No.’”
The word “slave” was objectionable, Murphy said. Furthermore, he didn’t remove the post, even after she had demanded that he do so. Murphy also accused him of maintaining a Facebook page that permits the airing of “opposing views,” which means that he “clearly isn’t being anti-racist.” That’s it. That was the scandal.”
(Incidentally, the quote derives from 18th-century French writer Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort—a Jacobin with who, fittingly for our purposes, died of suicide after being targeted during the Reign of Terror in 1793: “Almost all men are slaves for the same reason as the Spartans gave for the servitude of the Persians, the inability to pronounce the syllable No. To be able to pronounce this word and to know how to live alone, are the sole means for conserving one’s freedom and character.”)
Among conservatives and principled liberals, the emerging response to this kind of farce is that the targeted business needs to simply ignore or refute the mob—or otherwise “grow a spine.” But achieving vertebrate status in these situations often is impossible. That’s because staff themselves sometimes will take sides with the mob, since (as the recent hounding out of two of the brightest New York Times editors shows), many young workers are more loyal to their Twitter followers than to their employer. These mortifying apology rituals are often more about staff retention than mollifying some troll.
Moreover, since small markets no longer really have any kind of consistent adult media oversight, and everyone is taking their moral cues from the same handful of Twitter accounts, it’s always an open question whether local journalists will openly take sides with the trolls. (In Halifax, in particular, one of the reasons that a small clique of cancel-culture enthusiasts holds so much sway in the arts scene is that the only coverage these controversies tend to attract is supplied by the Coast, an arts weekly that never stopped cheering on Pimienta’s aforementioned race-shaming of a local music-festival volunteer.)
The nature of the targeted business is also an important factor. One of the reasons why you often see cafés, bakeries, yoga studios, and the like being mobbed by little inquisitors is that they aren’t selling necessities such as cement or roofing shingles. They sell luxury goods to fickle consumers who are buying into a certain brand and ethos, and who expect to have their ideological conceits performatively indulged in return for their tip money. (This helps explain the paradox of why cancel-culture trolls systematically target businesses that already have signaled their progressive bona fides: The more woke the staff and customer base, the easier it is to extract concessions.) Moreover, the clientele of such highly localized businesses often is tethered to a web of neighbourhood-based social media platforms, through which gossip and accusations can spread like wildfire—thereby raising the possibility of shaming not only the business, but also anyone who continues to patronize it.
In Halifax, it’s hardly unrealistic to imagine that whole local markets will switch from Steve-O-Reno’s to, say, Stacey-Tastic or Sam-O-Rama if they find out the fair-trade beans aren’t sourced from the right kind of Guatemalan village, or if the owner’s spouse liked a Tweet from a guy whose cousin once wore a MAGA hat. Unlike me, and maybe you, business owners with payrolls to meet and mortgages to pay don’t have the luxury of being able to fight back every time a social-justice enforcer comes by to stick them with a coroza and sambenito. As with every other kind of shakedown, it often makes good short-term sense to pay up and move on. Which is what the bullies want and expect.
These are tiny battles, of course. And it’s easy to simply roll one’s eyes and let them pass without comment or protest. But as the example of the Times meltdown shows, the culture of fear these bullies collectively spawn can have consequences that affect the political fabric of whole nations—which is why I occasionally will pluck out a representative specimen to dissect. In time, there will be a Thermidorian reaction—as there always is following periods of social panic—and sanity will be restored. But in the meantime, ordinary people of good sense will have to wade into the fray, to speak the truths that these businesses cannot.
And yes, such micro-interventions can be effective. The only reason I know of the campaign against Steve-O-Reno’s is that a playwright named Allan Stratton, who’d finally had his fill of cancel culture, began posting detailed defences of the café chain on Facebook, pointing out how absurdly petty the accusations really were. Others added their voices, the tide seemed to turn slightly; and, in time, Murphy (if that’s her actual name) either deleted her original smear or walled it off from public viewers.
This is just a tiny half-victory in a tiny fight involving a tiny business in a tiny city. But the pushback against mobs cannot be accomplished with any single grand gesture: By its nature, it’s a war that can be won only through the combined effect of many small battles. Like all bullies, cancel-culture trolls are utilitarians who carefully measure payoffs versus costs when they embark on their cynical gambits. By holding them accountable in a consistent and principled fashion, we can ensure that their decision to mob a neighbourhood business will hurt them more than it hurts all the world’s Steves, Staceys, and Sams.
Featured image: Goya’s sketch of inquisition victim in coroza and sanbenito, created between 1814 and 1823.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.